Difficult Conversations: Overcoming a Historical Impasse

Wendy Sage-Hayward, MA, FEA
Published: Jun 17, 2021

Family Focus story

In 1945, John Brittle started a family-owned textile manufacturing company in Central Canada. With equality at the forefront of his values, he decided that he was ready to pass the business over to his two children and would give them each fifty-per-cent. Unfortunately, Charles and Louie were not able to make decisions together and ended up in a 10-year court battle for control of the company.

Charles was the CEO and Louie did not work in the company, so Charles bought out his brother by court ruling. It was an ugly and difficult situation which had a lasting impact on Charles. He and his brother never spoke again.

Charles vowed to do everything in his power to avoid this ever happening again in his own family with his wife Teresa and their three children. Charles went to great lengths to ensure conflict never erupted in his home. For example, when the children started fighting, he immediately intervened and sent the children off to their rooms. The message the children took from this experience is that conflict was to be avoided. One sibling reflected that although they appreciated that conflict was challenging, they regretted that they never learned to resolve their differences with one another as children. Instead, their challenges were swept under the rug. Seemingly on the surface this was a loving, trusting, and connected family.

Charles decided the best way to avoid what happened between him and his sibling was to give controlling ownership (51%) to only one of his children where “the buck would stop” so they “could make all final decisions that were necessary.” Charles gave controlling ownership of the business to his son and CEO who had been working at the company for 15 years. Jason was a strong leader both in the business and the community. However, Charles was a fair man and wanted to compensate his other two children for this difference and did so by giving them monies and properties not associated with the business.

Charles’ oldest son, Harry, started working in the business just after his brother, Jason, took on the CEO role. Charles’ youngest child, Lara, only worked for the company during the summer months while she attended university. Her husband, Dan, had been working at the business since he graduated from high school, which was significantly longer than Jason’s tenure in the business. Lara felt Dan was her proxy for working in the business given her two other siblings worked there. Dan loved the Brittle family and their family business. He was often told by Charles and his mother-in-law, Teresa, that he was like a son to them. He truly felt part of the Brittle family.

However, emotions grew volatile when Jason took the reigns of the top leadership role. He and Jason did not always see eye to eye. They had very different styles of leadership. Jason was more of a relationship focused leader; he was charismatic and a strategic thinker. Dan was more tough minded and could be curt and directive. Jason had given Dan some feedback in his performance review that he needed to foster the family culture of kindness and care to all. Jason felt Dan was too abrupt in how he spoke with the employees and wanted him to take a “softer tone.”

Dan was somewhat still resentful about the share buy back that happened when Charles started doing his estate planning. Their lawyer recommended that the company buy back the shares they had given to the three in-laws. This caused some hurt feelings in the family; however, everyone remained silent in fear of causing tension and conflict.

Despite these relatively minor matters, the family got along well – at least on the surface. Therefore, it came as a tremendous shock when in 2015 when Jason called Dan and asked to meet him at the local diner for a work chat. During the conversation, he told Dan that he knew he was not happy at their business and asked him to take a 3-month leave of absence to get some counselling and think about what he really wanted to do with his life. Dan was taken off guard, deeply hurt and profoundly confused by the whole interaction. He essentially thought he was fired. Jason and Dan did not speak again until the end of the 3-month leave when Dan indicated that he found other employment and would not be coming back to the company.

During the same time that Jason invited Dan for the chat at the diner, Harry, the oldest sibling called Lara to explain to her what Jason was telling Dan. He and Jason had worked out this plan together and felt it was best to tell them separately.

Like Dan, Lara was overcome with dismay and shock. She was in complete disbelief that her siblings would do this to her husband. She thought they were “family” which meant they supported each other no matter what. Lara was deeply hurt about what her siblings had done and asked them if Charles knew. According to Jason, Charles knew. Lara was profoundly embarrassed in front of her mother-in-law and father-in-law. She could not find the words to explain why her family had done this to their son.

Relationships amongst the siblings profoundly changed after this incident. The family still gathered for holiday and birthday dinners, but Lara and Dan often left early. Their ease of talking and sharing stories dissipated. They felt empty and withdrawn. They felt like “outsiders in their own family”. However, no one spoke about this incident for many years. No one checked in with Dan and Lara about how they were doing or feeling.

At the end of 2019, Charles discovered he had stage 4 lung cancer and passed away within a few months. The family never gathered to sort things out all together while Charles was alive. The opportunity for conversation to talk things through together was lost. Many conversations were left unspoken.

As is often the case, the passing of a family member can be a catalyst for issues to resurface. Decisions need to be made about future ownership and leadership of the family enterprise. The Brittle family was no exception. Charles’ death inspired the need to figure out the future of the family enterprise. However, there was so much anger, resentment, and frustration on all sides that the family avoided getting together. Teresa realizing that her family was falling apart sought help from a third party.

The family hired a family business advisor who helped them start the process for of having difficult conversations about their repressed issues. They decided to frame the issue as a ‘historical impasse’ which gave them a way of labeling the incident that felt more neutral. Their very fragile state of ‘harmony’ which had been unconsciously constructed to manage their relationships while their mother was still alive was at risk. The process took about 6 months and was highly structured. The structure offered comfort and clarity about how any conflict in the conversation that arose about historical events would be managed. The steps they followed included the following:

Establish Purpose and Goals

The first step was to define the purpose and goals of the process. It was important to be clear about this at the outset to clarify expectations and establish alignment on the desired outcome. They agreed on the following goals for the process:

  • To ensure everyone heals from this event and to repair family connections.
  • To form a common view of events in order to move forward with greater unity.
  • To prevent future events from becoming historical impasses.

Develop a Safe Space

Next, the family established clear ground rules which helped them create a safe space for the conversation. They need to ensure there was structure and guiding principles that would allow them to say the things that needed to be said without fear of eruption and/or backlash. The family created an extensive set of guidelines. Below is a small subset of what they created:

  • We will have the courage to say how we really feel.
  • We listen to understand one another – and really hear one another by reflecting back what we are hearing and appreciating that this does not necessarily mean we agree.
  • We will not use what others say against them later.
  • We are willing to apologize to each other when we are wrong, or when we hurt someone else even if we had no intention to do so.
  • We will avoid triangulating with one another.

Individual Preparation

The next step involved meeting with each person individually to help them prepare what they wanted to say. They worked on framing their words in a way that allowed the other family members to hear what they had to say. The preparation questions for each family member included the following:

  • What were your key concerns at the time? Now?
  • What questions do you want to ask to better understand others’ perspectives?
  • What do you need to move forward in this process?
  • What are your regrets in the process?
  • What are the lessons learned for you?

Conduct Family Discussions

The next step involved getting the key players together to start the discussion. The Family Enterprise Advisor offered a highly structured environment for the conversation to take place. Although this did not reduce their overall anxiety initially, it fostered comfort and confidence in the process which was built throughout each conversation. They conducted several meetings until each person felt they said what they needed to say, asked the questions that they needed to ask, and felt their hurt and pain had been heard by the others.

Identify Lessons Learned

The last meeting involved defining the lessons learned from the process that they could collectively share with the rising generation. Given some rising generation members had formed an impression of the events from their parents, the incumbent generation felt it was important to provide a shared understanding of the events with agreed upon lessons learned. They hoped this would offer the rising generation tools to avoid falling into the same pitfalls they did.

The family is still working on rebuilding trust which they know only happens in small exchanges that occur consistently over time. However, they have seen significant improvement in how they each feel and think about the family and family enterprise at this stage. Their greatest gift from the process has been that they have hope again about the future.

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